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Trump Leaked Classified Info; Trump Hosting Erdogan at White House; North Korea Behind Global Cyberattack? Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired May 16, 2017 - 04:00   ET



[04:00:09] H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: The story that came out tonight as reported is false. I was in the room. It didn't happen.


DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: The White House with a full-throated denial after the president of the United States was accused of sharing classified information with the Russians. What did he say? Why does it matter? And how does this White House stop what one Republican senator called a "downward spiral"?

Good morning and welcome to EARLY START on another extraordinary day. How many times have we said that in politics? I'm Dave Briggs.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: There is not a chaos-free day in this White House.


ROMANS: In this administration.

I'm Christine Romans. It is Tuesday, May 16th. It is 4:00 a.m. in the East.

And here's what we're talking about. After months of venting over the talk about Russia and White House leaks, President Trump has now combined those two stories into one giant self-inflicted wound. The White House pushing back fiercely against reports the president shared highly classified information with Russia's foreign minister and ambassador to the U.S. in that White House meeting last week.

CNN has now confirmed the key points of the story first reported by the "Washington Post." One official with knowledge telling "The Post" that Trump, quote -- Trump said, quote, I get great intel. I have people brief me on great intel every day -- before he reportedly relayed the intelligence details.

BRIGGS: The president did not directly reveal the source of the information, but intel officials tell CNN the concern is Russia will be able to figure out the highly sensitive source, highly sensitive in part because the information came from a foreign ally. The intel relates to what is called a Special Access Program or SAP, covering some of the most sensitive information protected with unique security protocols.

The White House once again spinning into damage control.

CNN's Sara Murray starts our coverage from the White House.



Another day at the White House and another damaging headline. On Monday evening, administration officials were sent scrambling, insisting the president did not jeopardize classified information and share it with Russian officials.

MCMASTER: There's nothing that the president takes more seriously than the security of the American people. The story that came out tonight as reported is false. The president and the foreign minister reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries, including threats to civil aviation. At no time -- at no time were intelligence sources or methods discussed, and the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known. I was in the room. It didn't happen.

MURRAY: Those comments from President Trump's national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, coming after the "Washington Post" broke the story that President Trump shared classified information with Russia's foreign minister and ambassador in a meeting at the White House last week.

Now, CNN has confirmed the main details of this story. One thing is clear -- despite the White House's denial, this has certainly sent the White House off of its message. They were hoping to reset this week after the president's controversial firing of FBI Director James Comey and instead focus on their new FBI director, focus on the upcoming foreign trip.

But if Monday is any indication, it's clear that's not going to come easy.

Back to you guys.


ROMANS: All right. Sara Murray, after a very busy night at the White House.

You heard H.R. McMaster refer to the story, quote, as reported. The national security adviser essentially saying that if there is so much as a single detail in "The Post" report that is wrong, he can dismiss the whole thing.

One of the story's authors, national security correspondent, Greg Miller, tells CNN the White House claim the president didn't reveal sources and methods, pushes back against something "The Post" never reported. "The Post" never said that. Miller stands by the main point of the story that the president disclosed highly classified details to Russian officials.


GREG MILLER, NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT, THE WASHINGTON POST: I think that the White House is playing word games here to that effect to try -- to try to blunt the impact of this story, nor do any of these White House officials who are denouncing this story, nor have any of them offered any explanation as to why if this was all above board and not problematic in any way, why did the National Security Council coming out of this meeting feel it was necessary to contact the CIA director and the director of the National Security Agency to give them a heads-up on what Trump had just told the Russians?


BRIGGS: Now, that "Washington Post" report has now been confirmed by "The New York Times," "The Wall Street Journal," "Reuters" and "BuzzFeed".

But in the hours after "The Post" report, the White House response was, well, mostly confused. Before McMaster even spoke, the administration issued sever statements, mostly focuses on those sources and methods which this report did not address. One statement from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson caught the State Department even by surprise.

[04:05:00] It issued its own similar statement 20 minutes later, after seeing Tillerson's statement on CNN.

ROMANS: Classified information at the center of this controversy involves ISIS plans to use laptop computers as bombs to take down airplanes. CNN first reported in April that U.S. intelligence agencies discovered terror groups were developing new techniques to plant bombs in devices capable of evading airport security screenings, an incredibly dangerous and important national security issue.

The Trump administration later imposed a ban on devices larger than cell phones for passengers flying from eight Middle East and African countries, citing factors, including human intelligence.

BRIGGS: At the time, CNN agreed to withhold key details of the intelligence, including the city where the laptop threat was detected by a U.S. ally because U.S. officials were concerned about revealing sensitive sources and methods. "The Washington Post" story citing U.S. officials says President Trump revealed the name of that city to Russia's foreign minister and ambassador, and those officials are now extremely concerned about the president compromising a critical ISIS intelligence source and its impact on global U.S. security partnerships. They also worry Mr. Trump might have put the lives of U.S. agents in the field at risk.

ROMANS: Some security experts even musing yesterday that they may have put the sources themselves at risk, where sources of very important information. Lawmakers reacting to the report with deep concern, with alarm.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi saying at a CNN town hall that if the president did what is alleged, it would be very damaging.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: This is a very serious matter. This is code word source highly classified information revealed to an adversarial country and to do so in a way, very sophisticated intelligence Russia never stopped. Putin was head of the KGBT. This is what they do.


BRIGGS: And on the Republican side, Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, saying of the White House, quote, They're in a downward spiral right now and have got to figure out a way to come to grips with all that's happening. Corker says, You know the shame of it is really there's a good national security team in place, but the chaos that is being created by the lack of discipline, it creates a worrisome environment.

ROMANS: The ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, calling it deeply disturbing and demanding a briefing for his committee.

Meantime, on the lighter side, Senator Susan Collins quipped to reporters, Can we have a crisis-free day? That's all I'm asking.

BRIGGS: If President Trump did reveal classified information to the Russian diplomats, critics might call it reckless and irresponsible, but in fact, it is unlikely he broke the law here. That's because the president has broad authority to declassify government secrets and can even do it by merely stating something in a public setting.

Listen to the reaction of former CIA Chief James Woolsey, who served for a period of time on the president's transition team.


JAMES WOOLSEY, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: We have to distinguish between what's legally permitted and what is wise. It is legally permitted for the president to declassify something, even if he does it quickly and without giving it much thought. There's not a legal requirement on that. But it's not wise to do that.


ROMANS: Now, under the heading of political irony, remember the president in many of his key supporters have a history of going after others who allegedly disclosed sensitive information.

Here's how Speaker Paul Ryan, tweeting about Hillary Clinton last July: It's simple. Individuals who are extremely careless with classified info should be denied further access to it.

He's talking, of course, about the FBI director, you know, determination that she was extremely careless with her e-mail.

BRIGGS: Yeah, the private server.

White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, same time frame: Those who mishandled classified info have had their security clearances revoked, lost their jobs, faced fines, and even been sent to prison.

As for the president himself, listen to his words.


DONALD TRUM, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We can't hand over our government to someone whose deepest, darkest secrets may be in the hands of our enemies.

I don't think it's safe to have Hillary Clinton be briefed on national security because the word will get out.

We can't have someone in the Oval Office who doesn't understand the meaning of the word confidential or classified.


ROMANS: And more along the same lines from last summer, the president tweeting, Crooked Hillary Clinton and her team were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information. Not fit.

Worth noting, the quote in that tweet is from now former FBI Director James Comey.

[04:10:02] BRIGGS: And look, this is like most stories right now, there are two entirely different political narratives being spun out there, and one is that this is all fake news, that this all denied by the White House and the very well-respected national security team, and the other is that this is a serious threat to our national security and a serious breach of what we expect of the president.

So, we will try to get to the bottom of all of this throughout the next two hours.

But, first, classified information not the only topic the White House struggling to clean up. What the president may or may not have said.


REPORTER: Why won't you just explain whether or not there are recordings of --

SEABN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think the president's made it clear what his position is.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BRIGGS: Still no real explanation on the president's veiled threat to release recordings of James Comey. That's next.


BRIGGS: The White House is refusing to confirm or deny whether the president is recording phone calls at the White House.

[04:15:02] Mr. Trump made a thinly veiled threat against James Comey last week, tweeting the fired FBI director better hope there are no tapes of their conversations before he decides to, quote, start leaking.

The president's spokesman, Sean Spicer, offering no clarity on this controversy.


SPICER: I think I made it clear last week that the president has nothing further on that. I made it clear what the president's position is on that issue.

REPORTER: Why won't you just explain whether or not there are recordings of president --

SPICER: I think the president's made it clear what his position is.


ROMANS: Attorney General Jeff Sessions met with President Trump about the search for a new FBI director on Monday. It is not known whether sessions offered a final recommendation or just an update.

BRIGGS: Well, out on the table, when Turkey's controversial leader meets with President Trump at the White House today. President Recep Erdogan is critical of nearly everything the U.S. hopes to accomplish in the Middle East and the war on terror. But the relationship between the two countries is certainly complicated and conflicted.

CNN's Muhammad Lila has a preview for us this morning. He joins us live.

Good morning, Muhammad.

How did the president's decision to arm the Syrian Kurds undermine -- perhaps how does it loom over this meeting today?


Yes, it's certainly going to loom over the meeting in a big way. Look, you've got two world leaders who share similar personality traits, but when it comes to policy, they are very far apart. Turkey's President Erdogan is going into this meeting with President Trump with two goals. The first is to convince the United States to stop arming and stop

backing Kurdish groups on the ground in Syria. The United States is backing them to help topple ISIS. Turkey considers some of those groups terrorist groups and wants that to start.

The second goal is for the U.S. to extradite a religious cleric by the name of Fethullah Gulen. He's currently living in the United States. Turkey wants him extradited because they say he's behind the failed military coup attempt last year.

Those are two very big demands. It's unclear whether the Trump administration is willing to concede to either of them. But of course, the fallout also might be some of this intelligence information that was passed on to Russia.

Look, we know that in Syria and the fight against ISIS, Russia and Turkey are not fighting directly, but we know that they're backing opposite sides. Russia backs Syria's government, President Bashar al Assad, and Turkey backs a lot of the rebel groups that are fighting Bashar al Assad.

So, we don't know what the nature of that intelligence was. But, of course, if you're Turkey, you've got to be concerned that that intelligence might endanger some of your own operations and your own troops on the ground right now fighting ISIS. So, you've got to imagine that's got to be a major concern for Turkey, something President Erdogan might raise directly with President Trump when they meet today -- Dave.

BRIGGS: Muhammad, thank you.

Of course, there's a question of how does the United States, the Trump administration, value human rights, but now that takes a back seat because of this latest controversy. Thank you.

ROMANS: All right, a possible link between the worldwide cyber attack and North Korea. Is Pyongyang expanding its nefarious activities? We go live to Seoul.


[04:22:22] BRIGGS: Missile tests and a nuclear threat may not be the only concerns about North Korea. Security experts tracking the global ransomware attack that affected 150 countries say the trail of clues could lead back to the North Korean regime, which has a long record of computer criminality.

CNN's Alexandra Field following the developments. She joins us live from Seoul.

Good morning to you, Alexandra. What do we know this morning?


Well, look, this is the beginning of a massive investigation. You're talking about more than 300,000 cases, more than 150 countries. So, yes, there are a lot of governments around the world who want to know who is at the root of this attack, and the job of figuring that out falls on security firms and researchers.

One breakthrough now is that a researcher at Google has said that code used in the attack bears similarities to code that has been used by a North Korean hacking group called the Lazarus Group.

No comment from Google, but two major security firms are saying they have found the same similarities. They say this is still a weak connection. They need stronger connections. And another security firm says that the similarity is not unique enough to point in any definitive way to the operator here.

But this is one piece of evidence that certainly researchers and security firms are going to be looking at. What they do in these cases in order to find out who is at the origin of these attacks is to try and look for code that's been used by known groups in the past. That may be what led them to look at Lazarus.

Lazarus is the group out of North Korea that was linked to the major hack of Sony Pictures in 2014 after Sony Pictures produced a spoof film about North Korea. Lazarus has also been linked to cyber attacks on banks around the world.

Right here in South Korea, officials aren't pointing to North Korea. They say this is still the beginning of the investigation into who is behind this attack, but, Dave, defense officials here have in the past said that North Korea is responsible for at least ten cyber plots in just the last decade alone.

And defense officials here believe that North Korea continues to build up its capacity to carry out cyber attacks. They say that the cyber attack team inside North Korea is 6,800 people strong -- Dave.

BRIGGS: Wow. And more than 300,000 worldwide users impacted by that cyber attack.

Alex, thank you.

ROMANS: All right, desperate attempts to contain the world's biggest cyber attack appear to be working. The infection did not spread as much as law enforcement expected yesterday. Still, the virus that hit 150 countries was a wake-up call for the world and investors.

Cybersecurity stocks, Dave, look at that, Monday, big jumps there for companies like Palo Alto Networks, Symantec and FireEye. Cybersecurity is a big and growing business. Funds for the sector are up about 35 percent in the past year.

[04:25:03] The latest attack, which locked computers and demands payment to open them, it targeted machines running Microsoft Windows without up-to-date security. In an unusual move, Microsoft -- Microsoft swiping at the U.S. government for the attack. That's because the tools used in this malware were stolen from the NSA. Microsoft president Brad Smith telling CNN, that's why we need new rules about government stockpiling cyber weapons. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRAD SMITH, MICROSOFT PRESIDENT & CHIEF LEGAL OFFICER: One of these rules should actually put new restraints on governments so that they're not hoarding these vulnerabilities, they're not creating all of these exploits, and when they are, that they're keeping them secure.


ROMANS: He added that Microsoft wants a digital Geneva Convention for cyber weapons.

So, imagine, you know, governments can see these vulnerabilities in, you know, operating systems are the global economy, basically, has them, sees them, could use them if they wanted. Maybe don't. They're just stockpiling it as a cyber weapon, but then it's hacked or leaked and then it's out there.

BRIGGS: We still don't know if it was hacked or leaked by the NSA.

ROMANS: We don't know. We don't know.

BRIGGS: Cybersecurity, the emerging economy.


BRIGGS: Global.

All right, talk about mixed messages from the White House --


TRUMP: We can't have someone in the Oval Office who doesn't understand the meaning of the word confidential or classified.


BRIGGS: What a difference eight months makes. The president himself now accusing divulging classified information to the Russians.